Killing the King: Bridging the Gap with Jon Jones
I began my Killing the King series back in September of 2012 at Bloody Elbow with Jon Jones. One year and some of the champions have changed places, but Jones remains dominant in the light heavyweight division. I feel as though now, with a few more good fights under Jones' belt, it is a good time to reevaluate the strengths and flaws of the light heavyweight king.
I will put it out there now, having a big punch is not nearly enough. Anyone who is saying "he's never faced a boxer like x" or "no-one with hands as heavy as y" is really basing their case on very little. In the light heavyweight division of 2013 very few of the top 10 can't knock an opponent out with a good punch.
Forrest Griffin is retired, Tito Ortiz is off in Bellator and though Chael Sonnen beat Shogun a few weeks ago, he is unlikely to be continuing in the light heavyweight division. The light heavyweight who lacks punching power is just not all that common in the upper echelons nowadays.
It makes great pre-fight hype in interviews, but "he's never been hit like I'm going to hit him" or "once he tastes my power..." are not solid game plans for bringing down a fighter who has taken on a truly mixed bag of elite competition and smashed them all.
Some fighters frequently use strategies which a traditional game plan can be implemented against. Anderson Silva pulls straight away from punches at the waist in almost every fight. I pointed to this in my Killing the King: Anderson Silva and suggested that convincing him to overextend could be a sound traditional means of hitting him cleanly. This wasn't clairvoyance on my part, simply understanding the boxing game wherein it has happened hundreds of times before.
It happened to Randy Turpin, Muhammad Ali, Prince Naseem and Roy Jones and just about every other fighter who routinely pulls straight back from punches—they just recovered their senses to a standing eight count instead of an angry Chris Weidman ground and pounding them.
Other fighters lack such trademark tendencies. When a fighter looks truly terrifying and one begins to think "where on earth do I start trying to break this guy down?" the best method is to find what he is really great at, then work backwards from there.
Jon Jones is a fantastic wrestler, but more and more we have seen him grind his more dangerous opponents down at range on the feet. Something which Jones has really pioneered in MMA is the attacking of the lead leg and body before moving to his excellent wrestling and ground and pound.
Now Jones' wrestling is high level but not unstoppable. There was a reason he chose to grind Quinton Jackson down over four rounds rather than trying to muscle Rampage to the floor and finish him there in the opening round. Rampage stopped all of Jones' attempts to take him down and keep him there in the first three rounds until he was tired and visibly injured.
So assuming that his challenger has decent enough takedown defense to at least dissuade Jones from immediately rushing them to the clinch and rag-dolling them to the floor, the early part of a fight at least should be a stand up one.
Now Jones' greatest weapon is his kicking game, particularly his destructive low kicks and body kicks.
Jones, unlike almost all big men in MMA, actually uses his reach superbly and circles out whenever he is in danger. Whether a fighter wants to take Jones down or knock him out, he has to get close enough to do that and in order to achieve this he must find a way of bridging the gap.
The Trouble with Hitting Jon Jones
One of the reasons that Quinton Jackson and just about anyone who needs to get into punching range is such an easy match up for Jones is that in order to swing they need to get close enough to transfer their weight from their back foot to their front foot (for a right hand such as Glover Teixeira's go to lead) or onto their front leg and then back again in a left hook (as is the favourite of Jackson and Shogun).
Each time Rampage, Rashad Evans or Vitor Belfort even began to close in on him, Jones would shoot out a thrust kick to the body or lead knee, or a brutal roundhouse kick to the head or lead leg. If you can't even put your lead foot down in range of Jones, you sure as hell aren't going to connect hooks on him.
Something interesting about Jones is that his new reliance on his grinding kicking game has necessitated a move away from his lead foot heavy stance which I remarked on a year ago. Jones is now fighting from a more upright, kick enabling stance and consequently shoots less for his opponents' hips or legs, instead doing his best wrestling mainly out of the clinch.
If Jones' challenger stays in a crouched, wide stance, hoping to stop shots and swing with all his might, he is just playing into Jones' new game. Wide stances are slow to check kicks out of and that allows Jones to kick at his opponent's legs with impunity.
To check kicks effectively and give oneself time to react without having to completely move one's weight, a higher stance is needed. We don't see many high stances in MMA but one of the best examples is Jose Aldo. He will stand very tall with his feet in almost a Muay Thai like stance, underneath him and ready to check or switch and kick. But Aldo, like a few really good kickboxers, can move from this Muay Thai like stance into a more aggressive boxing base when he steps in to attack.
Jones is going to keep the opponent off of their front foot anyway with oblique kicks and thrust kicks. It is the opponent's job to make sure that he is lifting his knee and checking kicks rather than simply taking them, being slowed down and beaten up in the process.
A great example of a world-class kickboxer who remains very light on his front foot until he is absolutely ready to get into range and start punching is Giorgio Petrosyan. Petrosyan will use his lead leg to check kicks and then set it down in a longer stance and begin punching, or will pick his lead leg straight up to teep and throw his opponent off.
It never ceases to amaze me how few MMA fighters, even when training for a bout against a renowned kicker, do not seem prepared to check low kicks. Not only is refusing to check low kicks simply giving the opponent points and damaging a fighter's own objectives, but checking kicks well can easily put an opponent off of throwing them or injure him in the process.
The Korean Zombie was the first fighter I have seen fight Jose Aldo and actually look prepared to check kicks. Everyone else I have seen Aldo fight has been crouched and ready to throw their own punches, leaving their lead leg on a platter for the Brazilian genius.
As soon as Aldo threw his first kick against Chan Sung Jung, it was checked and Aldo broke his foot in the process. It isn't uncommon to see powerful low kickers injure themselves as they kick into a good check.
In fact if one makes the effort to "knee spike," checking with the top of the shin and knee cap rather than the middle of the shin, they can pretty much ensure that the opponent connects on something which is harder than his shin bone.
Ernesto Hoost, an incredibly wily veteran of the Muay Thai and kickboxing world, won the second match of his 2002 K-1 Grand Prix winning run by checking Ray Sefo's low kick in such a way.
If Ray Sefo, who has been smashing bags and kicking folks in the leg on multiple continents for years, can hurt himself on a good check, Jon Jones (who has picked up the kicking game relatively recently) can too.
What Jose Aldo and Jon Jones are doing so well is fighting a kickboxing bout against guys who want a tough man contest.
Getting in with Punches
At this point, or at least for his next two bouts (assuming he wins the first), Jon Jones is lined up to fight two fighters who can really be considered rounded fighters but who have cut their niche out on the feet. Gustafsson through hyperactive movement, and Glover Teixeira through power.
It is not beyond either man to catch Jon Jones and put him to sleep (it is certainly even more of a danger as he is coming off of two "gimme" fights against middleweights and could be complacent), but nothing that they have shown to this point shows any signs allowing them to walk through the kicks of Jones to get close enough.
I will look at the style of each man in detail through the coming weeks I am sure (Gustafsson sooner than Teixeira), but here I shall attempt to outline both men in brief. Gustafsson's game is to back up and hope opponent's run onto his punches (a la Anderson Silva / Lyoto Machida), or failing that to circle with dozens of faked strikes and then land a meaningful one.
Teixeira's game is fairly simple, he walks forward until his opponent panics and throws a punch at him, then connects a cross counter: a right hook over the top of the opponent's jab. Nat Fleischer called it "unquestionably the most severe blow that can be dealt" in boxing and I am inclined to agree. This is the hardest punch most can throw, connecting on the temple as the opponent is focused on his own strike. It pretty much assures at least a wobbled opponent if it lands correctly.
Unfortunately both men have the same flaw: getting to their opponent. It's easy against fighters who only attack with their hands such as a declining Shogun or Rampage, but a little harder against someone who is going to try to invert your knee joint as your do so or tie you up on the way in.
In order to get in on Jones it might be the best idea to do what is traditionally ill advised against a wrestler—lead with a kick.
Treating a bout with Jones as a kickboxing match until it reaches the clinch might genuinely be a better idea than remaining ready to sprawl all bout and getting ones legs battered in the process before being tripped from the clinch.
Something I touched on last time I examined Jones in detail was that many fighters with good offensive skills have picked them up along the way and it is usually an accumulation of things that have troubled them in training. Bas Rutten's love of leg locks and specifically knee bars after losing to Ken Shamrock twice by them is a nice example.
Jones' love of the oblique kick might well reflect firstly it's annoying affect on one's stance and opportunities to engage. Certainly it is a more difficult kick to grab a hold of than the standard rear leg roundhouse kick to the thigh.
Inside low kicks are also something I have said could work against Jones. Rampage knocked Jones' lead leg straight out of his stance with an inside low kick, had Jones standing wide open, and proceeded to do nothing with it.
Getting Jones' legs up underneath him or forcing him to lift one up negates both his movement (he is very good at circling away from danger) and his ability to shoot a double. Jones doesn't shoot so much anymore but as a tall fighter he suffers from something of a telegraphed level change if he stands tall. Keeping his legs underneath him also serves as something of an early warning system on the shot.
Of course kicking Jones brings it's dangers but ultimately fighting Jones is never going to be a walk in the park.
If a fighter can accept the threat of Jones' takedowns in the clinch and get out of the mindset that he must be squatted at all times in case of a shot, he will have better success in checking or punishing Jones' kicks, and this is the first step towards getting close enough to land cleanly on Jones.
Pick up Jack's eBooks Advanced Striking and Elementary Striking from his blog, Fights Gone By.
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